Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Meeting Anita Diamant

Who is Anita Diamant? She is a respected writer on contemporary Jewish living, and the author of The Red Tent, a NY Times bestselling novel about Dinah, the little-known daughter of Jacob, and the sister of Joseph in the Old Testament. Moreover, she created a new genre of literary fiction, a wave of biblical literature that remembers the voices of forgotten women. Invisible women, silenced women, women of seemingly "little consequence." She affirms the message: as women, we all have consequence. Each and every one of us. We all have stories, and other women want to hear those stories.

As you can tell, I am a huge fan. I read The Red Tent when it was first published in 1997, back when I was in college. Two years later, I bought a secondhand copy of the first paperback edition with my newly depleted college graduate's budget. (Being Asian, we typically don't buy books when we can borrow them from the library. But I had to have this one.) I did not know then how much this story would inspire me, but the journey of Dinah, her courage and authenticity, stayed with me as I traversed the Middle East: Israel, Jordan, Egypt, as well as ancient cities like Ephesus, Cappadocia, and Corinth. When I struggled in my spiritual journey and began writing the tale of Simon (St.) Peter's wife, Anita's book became a bedside reference that continually drew me into the lush, vibrant Old Testament world and gave me a path to a beautiful and visceral New Testament world of my own imagining.

I was excited. And nervous. I boarded the subway at the MBTA red line Braintree station at promptly 5pm, and arrived at Coolidge Corner at around 6:15pm. I was forty-five minutes early to her event at Brookline Booksmith, and I realized I had not eaten dinner yet. Frantically, I paced the neighborhood looking for food, but I could not find anything that suited my appetite. So I rushed back at 6:45pm hungry.

There she was, looking elegant in a black polka-dot sundress and matching sweater. She even brought a wedding cake for the occasion, since she was promoting her latest, The Jewish Wedding Now. (Note to self, cure for the stomach rumbling.)

I gingerly approached Anita and introduced myself, and she was gracious enough to sign my worn, dog-eared, twenty-year-old copy of The Red Tent. Then I presented her with a copy of my novel and signed it, citing her as one of the major inspirations. In between, we chatted and I mentioned we shared the same initial literary agent, Carolyn Jenks, but the traditional publishing route did not work out for me, so I self-published and went on my own. Anita did not seem to disapprove, and she asked me what I was doing to promote it. Was I talking to churches? Good, she nodded, and I realized it was probably a more effective venue than I gave it credit for. We took photos together, and then I sat down in the second row of the audience.

The New Jewish Wedding was actually Anita's first book, which she wrote in 1985 because she needed a similar guide for when she got married and could not find one. It has been revised and updated twice, every 16 years to be exact (once in 2001 and again in 2017). Concepts of huppah, mikvah, and klezmer were all new or vaguely familiar to me, but I was intrigued by the richness and vitality of the Jewish wedding traditions. She spoke about how the times have changed, and how the Jewish community has become much more open and inclusive in the last 32 years. What struck a cord with me, even in my ignorance of this heritage, was how the authenticity of the Jewish identity seemed to be preserved in the evolution of the traditions. And how welcoming it seemed, even to this South Vietnamese-American Catholic.

So I bought a copy of that book, partly for my Jewish friend who had very little to do with most things Jewish but seemed to be searching nonetheless with two young daughters who may want to know these traditions someday. The other part was that I was impressed by traditions I had never even thought about it, and wanted to peruse the book at leisure before giving it away to my friend.

Her presentation ended after maybe twenty minutes, and Anita began signing books and chatting with fans. I had a piece of cake, adorably adorned with wedding photos, and broke my sugar-free fast, but to be fair, it was really good cake. Then she began congregating with family and friends, and I realized that Brookline was now her neighborhood, and this was a community gathering of folks she knew well. Still I lingered. I didn't know what I was waiting for, but it was such a memorable moment for me that I wanted to prolong it somehow.

When I went to say goodbye, Anita said to me, "I am so glad the book meant so much to you. But I need you to tone it down. I am just me." I was suddenly embarrassed. Even then, I was grateful for her humility. "Other authors who are not as accomplished as you are not so down to earth," I said. She smiled. "Success after forty...you don't expect it."

I walked (well, walked for few blocks and rode the MBTA red line) home with a profound lesson. Anita Diamant reminded me of the intrinsic value of being human, and that we are all "just us." No matter how successful, wealthy, famous someone may become, they are still just a human being who can connect to me as another human being. We are all equals and we are all "just us."

Remember your place.

It was a fundamental lesson in self-respect.

One I am not apt to forget.

Thank you, Anita.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Broadway Buddy for a Day

Here was my schedule for Saturday morning:

5AM: Wake up

6AM: Leave for the airport

7AM: Board the plane

8:30AM: Arrive at Newark Airport

9AM: Take train to Penn Station

9:35AM: Take taxi to Broadway

Why, you ask? Why all the sleep privation and hassle from Boston to New York? My love of Broadway musicals, of course. There is a culture and subculture of denizen theatre goers who enter the lotteries, queue up at rush ticket lines, and wait for standing room to see their favorite shows.

So at 9:50AM, I arrived promptly at the Broadway Theatre, and scurried onto the very end of the line for rush tickets for the revival of Miss Saigon. The box office opens at 10am, and there were about 25 people ahead of me in line, and I very much doubted whether I would be able to see the show. Chances are, tickets would be sold out by the time I got to the box office window.

As I stood there pondering, a pleasantly faced old man in his sixties with a baseball cap approached me. He was standing at the front of the line, and his niece just cancelled on him, so would I like a good seat at the front of the orchestra with him? I was immediately exhilarated, and accepted without a suspicion in the world. I waited for him while he came back to the box office window, and as he anticipated, he scored front row orchestra seats at Miss Saigon. So I paid him for the ticket ($39), and he proceeded to tell me to meet before 2pm, when the matinee starts, when I decided to buy him coffee. A kindness for a kindness.

So I asked him why he picked me, out of the 25 folks standing in line. He replied that I looked conspicuously unattached. Hmm...I have to think about that one...

Thus began my friendship with John. He was a mild-mannered New Yorker, who had seen the city transform over the course of 50 years, back from when he saw West Side Story in the 1960s for $1.50. He had an expansive knowledge of all 41 theatres in this metropolis I thought I knew so well, how the Winter Garden theatre was constructed in the 1920's, how the nondenominational Times Square Church was being sold for $35 million, the new renovation of the Brill Building, and how the Ambassador Theatre (where Chicago was playing) had a secret apartment upstairs. He affectionately chided Phantom of the Opera as the show that elevated Broadway prices from affordable to prohibitively expensive...($50 a seat when they opened in 1988!). We even toured the old locations of the Paramount Theatres and other now defunct icons of a glorious movie culture, now replaced by stolid looking office buildings or the ubiquitous storefront of some big consumerist franchise glimmering in Time square lights.

He shared how he happened to auspiciously be at a certain phone booth during the David Letterman Show, how he was called to be an average Joe guest after an audacious wave, and how those programs are much more scripted than one might think.

Coffee became an invitation to lunch at Emmett O'Lunney's Irish Pub, one of his favored hangouts where I had my first ever shepherd's pie. Apparently, this dish originated from the Irish shepherds out tending their sheep on the pastures without much besides potatoes and lamb. John was an investigator for 30 years with the city of New York, and recently retired due to a knee injury. (Now that's why he was such a good judge of character.) Not to let that stop him, he now works part-time as security at the Tropicana casino in Atlantic City, picking off cheaters from the blackjack table.

He told me how his aunt and uncle left him an apartment in Hell's Kitchen, the playground of Broadway actors, and ironically how he goes home to his place in Atlantic City because he doesn't want to disturb his nephew and girlfriend (lucky girlfriend) currently living in his midtown abode. He talked about old fashioned Irish virtues and work ethic, how he was a summer delivery boy at one of the old Stockbroker houses as a student, how he was hired into the financial industry upon graduation, and how he managed to study and break into another field, just as the brokerage firm went under.

Then he showed me St. Malachy's Church where the actors worshipped, the amalgam of creativity, inspiration, and faith. How I would love to imbibe that energy.

His face radiated pride when he spoke of his nieces and nephews, one a percussionist for Broadway and currently playing in the orchestra for Beautiful: The Carole King musical, another a business man in South Korea, and the young college student at Columbia University who cancelled on him today because she was working a last minute waitressing shift and needed the money. When he spoke about his wife and her twenty-five year struggle with cancer and how they couldn't have children, I saw the tears glisten in his eyes.

1:30 pm arrived before we knew it, and John showed me the interiors of Broadway Theatre, with wide entrances because it also used to be grand movie theatre in the same vein as the Paramount. Sure enough, our seats were front row orchestra and the view was amazing. He also pointed to the balcony, and laughed about how the rich folk of the city used to be more concerned about exhibiting their extravagant clothes then seeing the shows, since balcony seats sported terrible views in his opinion.

Miss Saigon was just as affecting and beautiful as I remembered it. I saw it in the early 1990's (without Lea Salonga, I might add) when my student budget only afforded a seat high up in the "nose-bleed" section. Being of South Vietnamese heritage, it reminded me of the trials and tribulations of my people in a particularly visceral way.

It also annoyed me about how they always managed to find Filipino singers for the role of Kim (why never Vietnamese?) and how the costume design was clearly inauthentic because the long flowing black satin hair of Vietnamese girls, our unique signature among Asian women, was ignored in favor of these hideous buns atop the head like a Laotian, Thai, or yes, Filipino girl. (Only wives bun up their hair in those times, certainly not the image an escort/call girl/prostitute would want to convey to customer.)

Nonetheless, I was grateful to John for this experience; for the show, for his memories, and for his stories. We exchanged phone numbers and I do hope we can keep in touch, but these encounters often amount to a memorable day or two and nothing more. Yet, it is in these moments that we truly share ourselves with strangers, our dreams and our heartaches, things too deep or too familiar to share with our loved ones. We allow ourselves to laugh, cry, and sing without fear of being judged. It is in these moments that we remember our humanity, that in living it is in the connecting of random souls, weighted down by baggage and yet we stubbornly seek the buoyancy of the soul, somehow hoping to rise above it all. For John, it was filling his time with Broadway shows, with music and fantasy, and occasionally a kindred spirit.

For me, it was a break from routine, this constant culture of going and doing. It was a space and a silence in which I did not have to achieve, did not have to perform, did not have to impress. I can just be.

There we were. Broadway buddies for a day...